August 4, 2013


The Worship of Mammon by Evelyn De Morgan.

Sermon for Year C, Pentecost Proper 13
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
August 4, 2013
St. Thomas Episcopal Church

When I was a child, not yet an adult, and not wise in the ways of the world --

 And having no comprehension about how amazing people can be,
   But only full of myself, and a bit selfish --
 I made the mistake once of looking at the checkbook
 That was kept in the rolltop desk of our family room.
I remember being shocked at what seemed like such paltry numbers
In the column where the balance was recorded.
I expected to see more commas, but instead found decimals!

Were we poor? No. We had what we needed, and some of what we wanted.
Was there any evidence of poverty creeping in? No.
Nevertheless, as I say, I was a child, and I had not lived on my own:
 I lacked the ability to see the part of the check register
 Where the purpose of the transaction was recorded:
   Money for food, for house payments, for insurance and cars and gas and clothing;
   Money for doctors’ visits and the church tithe;
     Money for sports uniforms and Scouting dues and class projects,
     And money to support the fundraisers my friends were participating in.
If I did bother to look at those things, I can’t recall now having done so.
I only remember thinking, The numbers, the numbers ... how close to the bone it all seemed.
Nevermind how close it probably was to the end of the month, to payday,
 When I looked at the checkbook that day.

If I had the eyes of the parent that I now have, and an idea about how things work,
 And the ability to read between the lines,
 I would have looked at the register and realized what a complete and total work of love it was
   On the part of my mother and my stepfather.
I would have seen the sacrifice and the outpouring of love
 That was being lavished on everyone in our home
   (And at the time there were four people under the age of 18 in that house).
I would have seen creativity and street smarts and trust in the providence of God.
I would have seen the ground my parents were giving us to stand on.
And I might have wept for the sheer bloody genius and craft of it all!
Surely, family budgets and checkbooks are statements
 About what we think is important!

But if we have not yet been given to see, we can’t.
And so I went off, worried.
I frittered and fretted about not having a home or food or clothes for school.
It seemed the poor house was just around the corner.
I didn’t realize it, but I had blinded myself precisely in opposition to the truth.
I thought we were going broke; the truth was, we were just living like everyone else.

Jesus tells us about a man of means,
 Who has everything he needs, and then some.
No quibbles with the “everything he needs” part;
 It’s the “and then some” part that’s going to give him trouble!
This man, in his time and place, has the perfect right to fill up his barns as they are,
 But he is obligated by a long-held custom to give the rest away to people who need it
 After his barns have been filled.
This is not negotiable.
It’s understood -- whatever won’t fit in the barns goes to the needy.

So building bigger barns to hold his harvest just isn’t supposed to be in the cards.
It’s ridiculous --
 Like a finger in the eye of the needy people living around him.
Nyah nyah nyah NYAH nyah.
He proposes to leave the needy high and dry -- Who cares about them? he thinks to himself.
I should eat and drink and be merry, he says to himself, remembering that bit from Isaiah --
 But not remembering the next line: “for tomorrow we die.”
And so, Jesus says, because of the man’s hideous behavior, the judgment of God is upon him.

Now, the man’s wealth per se is not the issue.
The fact that he has resources is not a problem so long as he will share them,
 And that goes for everyone, rich and poor alike.
The problem is that he’s blinded by those resources, loses perspective, and becomes greedy --
 That is to say, he likes how powerful it makes him feel.

Whether it’s securities or paper money or corn crops, or silver dollars or gold doubloons,
 Chickens or guns or beaver pelts or salt or tobacco,
 Currency has always existed in one form or another.
Theologically speaking, currency is energy that is expended for one thing or another.
When we spend our money, it’s a way of telling the world
 What we think is important, where we think our priorties should fall.
The family checkbook attests.
It’s like choosing, it’s like voting.
“For where your treasure is,” Jesus says in Matthew, “there your heart will be also.”

The man in the parable votes for himself. He chooses himself.
His treasure is himself. It stays with his own heart.
He can’t see beyond his nose.
His problem is his greed, but to say it more plainly, he’s selfish;
 That is, his worldview revolves around himself, developing his own power;
 Every sheaf of wheat goes into his own pockets, and who cares about anyone else?

My mother and my stepfather, by contrast, voted for their family:
 To feed them, clothe them, shelter and insure and educate them.
Their heart and treasure and choice was for their kids.
Every penny they had went toward helping us get along in life,
 Making us better people.
Perhaps by contrast, in proportion, we didn’t have as much as the rich man in the parable,
 But how we spent our treasure counted for a lot.
My parents’ outlook was -- well, you might say it looked outward.

“The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” Paul says in his letter to Timothy,
 “And in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith
   And pierced themselves with many pains.”
Love of money, Paul says: inordinate affection for money. Not the money itself.
The money itself is a tool; it’s neutral; it doesn’t care about what it’s spent on:
 For surely there are some who have had many resources
   And were not greedy at all -- are, in fact, very loving and very sacrificial,
   And a lot of what we’re sitting in right now is owed to their godly generosity.
You’ll find their names on plaques in the back of the church
 And scattered throughout this sanctuary,
   And when you look into how things operate, you’ll see their generosity at work daily.
The money itself -- not the problem.
It’s the “inordinate affection” that causes the trouble.

Let me give you a clear example, from the bottom up, that will take a few minutes to explain.
And I promise we’ll bring it back home and land it on the airstrip, okay?

My first “real” job was at a McDonald’s,
 Where the very first thing I learned was how to work the cash register.
As a cashier, the day after my 16th birthday, I started out at minimum wage,
 Which at the time was $3.35 per hour.
Today, 25 years later, the average McDonald’s cashier makes a little more than double that:
 $7.73 per hour, which is a dime over minimum wage.
If I’m 16 and just trying to figure out how to make my way in the world, that’s one thing.
But McDonald’s doesn’t need to care about this, or discriminate.
A 16-year-old cashier-trainee with no family or debt
 Is the same as a 45-year-old cashier-trainee with family and debt,
 Because they’re both cashier-trainees.
That $7.73 per hour is about half of what you need to earn what’s called a living wage,
 Which is a wage that allows one parent, working 40 hours per week,
 To provide enough, food, clothing, education, transportation, etc., for a family of four.
(The number of single-parent families, by the way, has also doubled in the past 50 years.)

Now let’s say we wanted to double the average salary of a McDonald’s cashier,
 Just to begin to keep up with reality.
What would be the practical effect?
First thing, layoffs.
When I worked in that restaurant as a teenager and business got slow,
 In the first available moment, there was a quick labor-cost analysis.
A lot of us teenagers lived for the question, “Do you want an early night?”
 And off we would go, to finish our homework or drive around with friends.
We weren’t thinking about how we were going to pay the babysitter or the auto loan.
But there were some among us who did worry about such things,
 And when they “got an early night,” it was a problem for them.

So, layoffs. And then after that?
Price increases! McDonald’s is going to raise its prices 24% to cover the difference.
Your Big Mac Value Meal that used to cost $6.20 up on Hamilton
 Will now run you $7.69.
And what does that do to their reputation as a provider of low-cost food?
Nope. Too much of a trade-off. So that’s out.

Those with a business background may be saying to themselves right now,
 Okay: If McDonald’s won’t raise its prices to cover a living wage for its workers,
 Then why not just dip into profits?
One answer -- the only answer that makes any sense to me --
 Is that McDonald’s is a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange.
It’s worth $78 billion,
 And for the past 36 years it has yielded increased shareholder dividends --
   Meaning it has consistently made good money as an investment --
   And on Wall Street, there’s a term for a company like that: Dividend Aristocrat.
It’s grown by ten percent a year for the last decade;
 Financially speaking, it wasn’t even aware of the last recession.
That one dollar you shelled out for McDonald’s stock in 1999 would be worth $16 today.
So the phrase “Billions And Billions Served” sort of takes on new meaning.

They’re not going into their profits, and they’re not raising their prices.
They’re not changing.

This is the system we’ve engineered.
Families -- low-income families especially, but also average families like yours and mine --
 Are dollar-voting for McDonald’s food based on the price
 And the fact that we know our kids maybe like the toys and maybe don’t hate the food
   (Despite what it’s doing to us when we eat too much of it).
Investors are dollar-voting for increased shareholder dividends.
The McDonald’s board is dollar-voting for itself by withholding the sort of change
 That could radically impact employees’ lives for the better.
They’re dollar-voting for stasis and the permanence of the existing model,
 Which may not be perfect, they’d say, but it works well enough.
The system we’ve engineered.

It’s no wonder, then, that last week employees of McDonald’s and Burger King and Domino’s
 Walked off the job hoping to strike for a $15/hour wage
 And the right to unionize without retaliation.

And we at home are starting to see all this.
Perhaps we had to pass through all the vagueness of the Occupy Wall Street Movement
 Before we could understand that as a society, we have a very big problem.
That unfettered greed does terrible damage, and power can truly corrupt.
We’re seeing how employees of massively profitable companies like McDonald’s and Walmart
 Are actually some of the biggest subscribers to public assistance programs,
 And we’re wondering about it, or at least we should be:
   We’re wondering, along with Jesus, Where’s your treasure? Where’s your heart?
   Or are you just going to keep tearing down your old barns and building bigger ones?
We’re seeing what happens to the body-politic when we don’t think of more than ourselves.

But. So What, right?
Sitting here right now, all of this probably feels somehow way beyond us --
 Way too big a problem to even begin to get our hands around.
I mean, how can little St. Thomas Episcopal Church really get to change such a world
 When it has been dealing with its own issues? Its own budgets?
 When it has its own questions about how to vote with the precious dollars it has?
Why should That Thing Going On Out There make any difference to us?

Well, in addition to the plain facts that we don’t make hamburgers here
 And that we are not a $78 billion enterprise,
 There is one big difference between St. Thomas and McDonald’s.
They may have a publicly flaunted corporate mission and a Plan to Win and so on,
 But what they’re really oriented toward and what keeps them going
   Is profitability. That’s just how it works.
They’re dollar-voting for more dollars.
St. Thomas, by contrast, is dollar-voting for Jesus Christ
 And the life and message of Jesus as the manifestation of the redeeming love of God.
Does that sound a little high and mighty?
I guess it might.
I don’t mean for it to sound snooty, but these really are the facts.
And importantly, we don’t get to just sit around and complain about those who have more.
And those who have more don’t get to just sit around and complain about those with less.
That all seems like a waste of time, doesn’t it?
Rather, Christians are called to point out those places they see injustice occurring
 All across the board.

That doesn’t mean things have gone precisely according to plan for us here.
It seems to me that for the last few years, we have been sort of like
 The child who just looked at his parent’s checkbook
 And is shocked and worried about what he has seen -- a child who fritters and frets --
   And sometimes still, that child can’t quite move past the place of worry.
We thought we had more and could do whatever we wanted with it.
Turns out we didn’t, and we can’t.
Sometimes still, that child forgets how much love and care is taken
 With every penny brought in and every penny spent.
It can be easy to lose patience and heart.

Needless to say, bigger barns are not in the immediate future.
Jesus says that’s okay -- that in fact when we start to focus on biggering our barns,
 Then maybe we’ve got problems.

In reality, of course, from everything I’ve seen,
 And in light of decisions we recently made about our budgeting,
 I really can say that St. Thomas is now living the definition of good stewardship,
   Which is simply this:
   Doing the very best you can with what God has given you.
This is just living -- budgeting and spending and trying to be responsible -- like everyone else.

And this is how we will live:
 We will be rich toward God.

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